Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov met with his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time on Monday and demanded more autonomy for Ukraine’s regions, even as under-pressure Kiev ordered its troops out of Crimea after Moscow’s seizure of military bases on the peninsula.
Lavrov unexpectedly agreed to the highest-level meeting yet between the Russian government and a representative of the new Ukrainian government that Moscow has vociferously opposed over the past month. The meeting took place on the sidelines of this year’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Lavrov told Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andriy Deshchytsia that Russia continues to want constitutional changes in the Ukraine that would give all its regions more autonomy.
Moscow is eager to retain its influence in its neighbor’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and prevent it from joining NATO. It has pushed for the Ukraine to become a loose federation, a demand the new government in Kiev has rejected.
Before the meeting, Deshchytsia said his government fears a Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s border.
“The possibility of a military invasion is very high. We are very much worried about this concentration of troops on our eastern border,” he said.
The concerns have deepened under the intense military pressure the Kremlin has applied in Crimea since Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed the peninsula last week. Since then, Russian forces have commandeered ships and broken into walled military installations with armored personnel carriers.
In Donuzlav Bay in western Crimea, dozens of Ukrainian sailors marooned on the Konstantin Olshanskiy navy landing vessel abandoned ship on Monday after weeks of tension and uncertainty. The Olshanskiy and two other warships have been trapped in the bay since Russian forces scuttled mothballed ships at the bay’s inlet.
Using a small rubber boat that needed several trips to ferry them to land, the sailors were greeted by hecklers on the shore.
One man shouted that they were deserting “rats,” while another blasted the Russian national anthem from his car.
“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name, Yevgeny. “Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?”
Twenty of the estimated 60 sailors originally on board remained on the ship, which was stormed by armed men — presumed to be Russian forces — later in the day.
Ukrainian Ministry of Defense spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the crew, which barricaded itself in the ship’s bulkhead, heard stun grenades and rifle fire.
At a naval base near the Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive earlier in the day and as many as 80 detained at the site, Kiev officials said.
With the storming of at least three military facilities in the peninsula over the past three days — and the decision by some troops to stay employed by switching to the Russian side — it was not clear how many Ukrainian troops remain on the peninsula.
Former Ukrainian navy chief Rear Admiral Denis Berezovskiy, charged with treason after he swore allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities and urged others to defect, has been named a deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new administration has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, on Monday signed a decree ordering the withdrawal of all servicemen in Crimea to the mainland.